Review: Malafouris, How things shape the mind

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 321 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

In How Things Shape the Mind, the archaeologist Lambros Malafouris outlines his Material Engagement Theory, which developed along the lines of inquiry initiated by Colin Renfrew in his work on measurement and weights. Renfrew, thus, provides a useful introduction to Malafouris’ book. In essence, material engagement is a synthetic approach of a few important developments in the archaeological study of materiality, neurology, and cognition toward understanding how humans engage with material artifacts in a way that constructs the human mind.

Malafouris asks that we take material culture seriously, and he’s in good company. Seldom does one encounter an archaeologist or anthropologist who doesn’t claim to be taking this important step away from underappreciating materiality. The familiar claim is that since Rene Descartes, Western science has not sufficiently apprehended the inextricable interactive connectedness between what was formerly erroneously dichotomized as body and mind. In truth, there is no such distinction and many attempts have been made to articulate just what sort of phenomena exists as “mind” that is continuous with the material world. Malafouris’ attempt here is to integrate some of those prior attempts into a coherent whole that explains how the mind is an emergent property of particular interactions. He does this with three moves.

The first necessary step is to advance the theory of extended mind. This theory, developed from the philosopher Andy Clark, is expanded by Malafouris to include insights from the closely related cognitive approaches of distributed, embodied, and situated cognition. The principal contribution of Malafouris here is in providing empirical and historical evidence for the ways in which material artifacts are not merely aids to an internal cognitive process, but are in fact integral to the process itself. In short, the extended mind posits that the mind is not an internal processing device that is ontologically extricable from the elements of content, but rather, “mind” describes the process wherein external materials are constitutive of the process such that there is no process of which to speak absent the external materials. The example Malafouris uses are the Mycenaean Linear B tablets that encoded memory. They function not as reminders, or tools, but rather as external mechanisms of a memory process that requires perception and percept.

The second required argument is that of enactive signification. Enactive signification refers to the mode of signification wherein the meaning of some sign or act is located in the interactive process itself, and is not symbolically encoded in the sign as a representation. Readers familiar with Peirce and Heidegger will find this argument convincing, and this is due in no small part to Malafouris’ presentation. Malafouris accomplishes this by appealing largely to empirical archaeological evidence wherein he demonstrates that numeracy was not merely encoded onto clay material as though it were a recording of a mental process, but rather, the clay itself acts as a means of providing signification for its enabling a qualitatively different cognitive process than what might be neurologically inherent prior to such material engagement. The manipulation of clay permits familiar perceptual processes to manage greater degrees of complex computation. The ability of the clay to do this resides in the process of manipulation such that it is no mere recording device, but a computational device.

Finally, Malafouris asserts the agency of materials. This agency is essential for supporting the thesis that not only do humans rely upon a tangible, manipulable world for cognition, but that the materials themselves play an active role in structuring cognition, and thus humans. Not merely do these materials structure a situated cognitive process, but they structure diachronically the neurological and physical substrate of the human insofar as they co-develop the means by which the world is intelligible.

In all, Malafouris’ book will be sympathetically received by any reader familiar with, and convinced by, the phenomenological approach to understanding ontology. Further, Malafouris does quite a bit here to ground the phenomenological theory in much-needed evidence in order to make it comprehensible to the empirically minded. That said, Malafouris admits that his isn’t a positivist perspective, and so making predictive explanations is theoretically outside the purview of his project. This may prove frustrating to those readers who feel inclined to test some of these theories; of course this is the case with much of socio-cultural theory. At last, Malafouris’ crusade against Descartes and those models of cognition reliant upon abstract symbolic processing may appear to be a bit theatrical and slightly made of straw for the reason that few readers following the scholarship of cognition and materiality still find enthusiastic advocates the disembodied mind; the problem is less of theory than of application.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

3 thoughts on “Review: Malafouris, How things shape the mind”

    1. Alas, I am one of ‘the empirically minded’ and so have some problems with it. It’s interesting to think about, until you get to actual questions of utility for practical problems.

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